It’s one thing to make a raunchy comedy.
It’s another to tell a serious story about someone coping with a life-threatening disease.
But in a category all by itself is the ability to put those two seemingly contradictory genres together so that they complement each other rather than cancelling each other.
It’s been deftly directed by Jonathan Levine (his most noteworthy previous film was the aptly-named The Wackness, which featured a makeout session between Sir Ben Kingsley and one of the Olsen twins!?!?!?!) and features a near-perfect cast.
When his back starts aching during his daily run, Seattle resident Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) decides to have it checked out. The diagnosis is terrifying: a huge malignant tumor is growing along his spine. His odds of survival are 50/50.
His already fading romance with live-in girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is circling the drain. That leaves Adam in the hands of his long-time friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) and a student psychologist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), to whom Adam is assigned for counseling.
Rogen plays…well, your standard Seth Rogen character: Scuzzy, funny, horny.
He’s the kind of guy who figures that a possibly terminal disease has got to be a chick magnet, if they can just figure out the right approach. At the very least it’s a get-out-of-jail free card when it comes to medical marijuana.
Kendrick’s Katherine is another story, a bumbler so transparent that you can see every shrink-ish move she makes way in advance. But she’s sweet and well-meaning, and as the movie progresses Katherine becomes genuinely endearing.
Holding down the center is Gordon-Levitt, a young actor as comfortable with comedy as heavy drama.
The kid is really quite good here, shifting from terror to wry resignation, from drug-induced nausea to ironic hilarity.
50/50 also has some really nice supporting performances, particularly Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall as a couple of older chemo patients who befriend Adam, and Anjelica Huston as our hero’s intensely alarmist mother (she may drive you nuts, but your mother will always love you).
Working quietly in the background is director Levine, who tells the story without calling attention to himself. Virtually all his choices are the right ones.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.